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Rethinking literacy skills in a digital world


“To be truly empowering, new technologies must stand on two pillars,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova as she opened the International Conference on International Literacy Day at Paris Headquarters, which focuses this year on Literacy in a digital world. “First, they must be inclusive, bridging gaps, not deepening them. Second, they must be underpinned by respect for human rights and dignity. All this gives rise to new questions about the meaning of literacy today.”

The Day has brought together more than 200 stakeholders and decision-makers from around the world to discuss and examine how digital technology can help close the literacy gap and evolve and monitor the necessary literacy skills needed in today’s societies. This is particularly important considering that 750 million illiterate people around the world, 63% of whom are women, still lack basic reading and writing skills.

“Traditionally, literacy has been considered a set of reading, writing and counting skills. The digital world calls for new, higher-level, competences on top of these,” said Ms Bokova. 

Special guest, Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands and UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development, emphasized how literacy in today’s world is at heart of social participation and engagement. “There is no inclusiveness if we leave behind 750 million people who lack the basic literacy skills to participate in today’s digital world,” she said. “There is no social cohesion if we allow young people to develop feelings of exclusion and lack of self-confidence.”

H.E. Ms Sarah Anyang Agbor, Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology from the African Union Commission, emphasized the aspect of inclusion for sustainable development. “When we consider the digital means, we should also consider non-digital means that also enhance our living,” she said. “Therefore we must ensure inclusion and proper interventions in using ICT in building sustainable societies for all.”

The opening was followed by a session on ‘Rethinking literacy in a digital world’ to explore the understanding of the broad skills needed in the 21st century. As the concept of literacy evolves, so does the skills demands from basic reading and writing skills to the ability to understand, engage and critically use e-services that are today replacing basic off-line services. 

Promising programmes that advance literacy through an inclusive approach to technology were highlighted at the event. The 2017 UNESCO International Literacy Prizes winners from Canada Colombia, Jordan, Pakistan and South Africa, presented their programmes to illustrate how digital technologies can help promote literacy and create opportunities for lifelong learning.  

Another topic discussed during the day was about risks and responses in a digital world. It focused on the need of inclusion of people in the information societies where the increasing digitization is deepening the digital divide and risks to marginalize illiterate people further. Representatives from the private sector, governments and educational organizations shared their views on the existing risks such as privacy and security, and how to minimize the divide through a more inclusive approach to technology.

The use of technologies to better asses and monitor literacy with digital tools, real time data and analytics, was also highlighted. Presenters from the OECD, UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the Kenya Institute of Curriculum examined the potential of digital technology to better monitor literacy learning and literacy levels.

At the end of the Day, the five laureates were officially awarded at the UNESCO International Literacy Prizesawards ceremony by the Director-General.

The two awards of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize dedicated to mother-tongue literacy education and training, sponsored by the Republic of Korea, were given to:

  • Centre for the Study of Learning & Performance (CSLP) at Concordia University (Canada), for the Using Educational Technology to Develop Essential Educational Competencies in Sub-Saharan Africa project, which develops and distributes its material internationally free of charge.
  • We Love Reading (Jordan), a programme with a virtual community that offers online read-aloud trainings for parents,  mobilizes volunteers to read aloud in community spaces to children and provides age-appropriate material through a digital library.

The three awards of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, supported by the Government of the People’s Republic of China and rewarding work that benefits rural populations and out-of-school youth, particularly girls and women, were given to:

  • AdulTICoProgram of the Secretariat of Information and Communications Technologies of the city of Armenia (Colombia), for teaching digital competencies to seniors.
  • The Citizens Foundation (Pakistan) for its Aagahi Literacy Programme for Women and Out-of-School Girls, which conducts digital educational needs assessments and provides teaching services to support the education of younger girls and older women.
  • FunDza (South Africa) for its readers and writers project to develop a culture of reading and writing for pleasure through an online platform that provides reading courses and writing competitions as well as connecting readers and writers.

International Literacy Day is celebrated annually worldwide and brings together governments, multi- and bilateral organizations, NGOs, private sectors, communities, teachers, learners and experts in the field. It is an occasion to mark achievements and reflect on ways to counter remaining challenges for the promotion of literacy as an integral part of lifelong learning within and beyond the 2030 Education Agenda.

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